Sorry, your beliefs are not off-limits

It’s no secret atheists are not the most popular group.  We have a reputation for being smug, arrogant, and generally not fun to be around.  It doesn’t help that many “activist” atheists go out of their way to be a nuisance, often treating believers with derision and condescension.  Meanwhile, we have to deal with a wide variety of negative attitudes, running the gamut from simple ignorance to outright hatred.

Those of us who see atheism in a different way have the unenviable task of dealing with the antipathy created by this awful combination of ignorance and the poor behavior of our cohorts.  As non-believers who do not hold the faithful in contempt, we must balance two priorities that are often at odds.  On one hand, we must be true to ourselves and not ashamed of our beliefs; on the other, we must not needlessly alienate people of faith.  Different people find different ways to do this, depending on their personality and life situation.

For myself, I’m someone with a very conciliatory nature so my overall goal is generally to get along with people as best I can.  I’ll go along with family prayers and such (though purposely keeping my eyes open).  I’ll avoid openly insulting religion when among company that contains believers.  It’s my hope that by doing this I can help eliminate some of the stigmas that come with non-belief and work towards creating an environment where respectful debate and discussion can happen.

But apparently this isn’t enough for some believers.  This absurd post in the Telegraph came across my Twitter feed this morning.  In it, a Mr. Tim Stanley argues that, essentially, atheists need to just shut up and stop criticizing faith because some believers might get their feelings hurt.  Stanley attempts to still affirm that he believes in free speech, but then clearly implies that, at least as far as Internet debates go, seculars need to keep their opinions to themselves lest someone’s deeply held beliefs be offended.  Stanley posts:

But it’s still amazing how people feel that they can casually mock the spiritual and emotional convictions of others – including Tweeting directly at believers that God doesn’t exist and they’re either liars or idiots for saying so.

Yes, it’s really amazing how some people are brazen enough to state that they don’t believe in God and actually feel like they can express this to those who do.  I for one am entirely baffled that anyone would feel like they have a right to question other’s beliefs on the Internet, since this has never happened ever before.  Please ignore for a moment that atheists are persecuted in numerous countries across the globe and routinely told we are awful people.  A theist has his feelings hurt, so we must tone down our rhetoric.

Are believers really so scared of their beliefs being questioned?  I get that it’s hard to have your convictions attacked.  As someone who used to be religious I get that your beliefs are important to you and define who you are.  But my beliefs are just as core to who I am.  Not believing that God has a plan for me, that he would take care of me, was a huge step in my coming to be a more independent, confident person and taking charge of my life.  No longer pretending to belief in mystical things has been incredibly liberating, and I feel more comfortable with myself and who I am than I ever did in the church.

What believers like Stanley seem to be asking for is that their beliefs, and ONLY their beliefs, be kept in bubbles and immune from attack.  They of course offer no such comfort to other faiths like Islam.  They certainly feel no need to withhold attacks on atheism.  Yet they expect us to pretend that their superstitions are somehow sacred, that THEY can believe whatever they want and have the rest of us walk on eggshells.  It’s the height of arrogance, and something I’d never be bold enough to even think of expecting.

Should atheists be tolerant and compassionate?  Of course we should.  The world would benefit by more folks being understanding and accepting that other’s beliefs are complicated and often well-founded (at least to them).  Religion has been around for so long because it fills a human need.  Like many I believe that this need could be otherwise filled.  But for billions of people religion is a huge part of their life.  You don’t accomplish anything by attacking it, you simply ensure that people dig in further. And you certainly aren’t improving the human condition.

I often don’t agree with the tactics used by Richard Dawkins and his ilk.  They are more about self-aggrandizing than converting or loving.  But they 100% have every right to express those views.  They have the right to attack religion how they choose to.  Believers should have no expectation that their beliefs are insulated and immune.  If their beliefs are true and well-founded, they should not be so scared to have them questioned.  Like it or not, religion is very validly blamed for many bad things in the world; the problem is that some who attack it forget the positive it can bring.   You do it no credit to demand that others treat it with kid gloves, while still retaining free reign to attack other faiths and non-belief.  You just look like a hypocrite.

If you want actual dialog, then whatever your belief, approach others with understanding and kindness. Assume that they actually believe what they claim to. Assume they are intelligent people until proven otherwise. Assume they do not hold their beliefs because they are stupid or evil.  Remember that people are individuals, not simply stereotypes. But also be aware your own beliefs might be questioned – sometimes strongly, sometimes unfairly.  If you genuinely hold them and can defend them you should have no fear to put them forth in the marketplace of ideas.

Why S.E. Cupp gets it wrong

I’ve known for a while that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp is an atheist.  While S.E. is not shy about admitting she does not believe in God, she’s not exactly advertising it either.  It is more or less just another fact about her.  And, to a large extent, I think that attitude is very good; being an atheist should be no more remarkable than any other personal belief.  We all need to strive for a society in which people are judged by character and actions, not supernatural beliefs or lack thereof.

But then I came across this article on The Blaze a couple weeks ago, and it got me thinking about S.E. as she relates to the secular community at large.  Atheists and agnostics are always looking for notable examples of respected folks who do not believe in a deity.  Not because we need to prove to ourselves that we are good people (we, for the most part, are).  But for every famous person who comes out as a non-believer, it becomes more and more “normal” and unremarkable.  Just think of how coming out as gay has become less of a scandal each time.  The first ones were immensely brave; now the reaction generally goes from “meh” to “he’s just seeking attention.”

So how does S.E. play into all of this, when she plainly admits that she would not support an atheist President? Well, one line in particular bothered me greatly:

“The other part of it — I like that there is a check, OK? That there‘s a person in the office that doesn’t think he’s bigger than the state,” she continued. “I like religion being a check and knowing that my president goes home every night addressing someone above him and not thinking all the power resides right here… Atheists don’t have that.”

This to me shows a deep, tragic misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist.  It plays into a common misconception that atheists believe in nothing besides themselves.  It is this false belief that leads many believers to treat atheists like immoral, hedonistic animals with no moral compass.  It’s perhaps the most damaging stereotype out there, and it irks me immensely that S.E. seems to be endorsing it.

The large majority of atheists believe in being decent, moral, ethical people.  Why?  Not because some book or spirit tells us to, but because we choose to.  We realize that this life is all we have and that the golden rule is a pretty darn good idea to live by.  Are there atheists who are awful people?  Of course.  But – and this cannot be hammered enough – there is NO reason to believe that believing in a supernatural deity of some kind makes you a better person.  Inasmuch as it does, it is based on a risk-reward system that says good folks go to heaven and bad folks burn in Hell.

And while I’m not one to question one’s personal beliefs, I’ll admit that the last part of it makes me wonder if S.E. is really comfortable in her own skin.  She does not believe in God, yet believes that a President somehow gains wisdom from a being that does not exist.  She believes that as an atheist she lacks this and that that makes her and fellow non-believers unfit for office.  I can’t pass judgment on whether her atheism is genuine, but she seems to have not arrived at a point yet where she is totally comfortable.  Though, in her defense, this is hard when she operates in a political world where religiosity is assumed.

Furthermore, S.E. also drops this line which is almost as bothersome:

“Because I do not think that someone who represents 5 to 10 percent of the population should be representing and thinking that everyone else in the world is crazy, but me.”

That’s just malarkey, S.E.  Sorry, it just is.  It is nonsense to say that an atheist cannot represent the rest of America.  Again, are there atheists who think all religious folks are crazy?  Sure.  But as myself and S.E. both demonstrate ably, there are plenty who, while not believing in God or an afterlife, still respect religious folks.  In fact, I’ll bet there are atheist/agnostic leaders right now that you don’t even know about, because they are able to judge and rule fairly.  It certainly seems to me that religious folks have done far more damage to individual liberty that atheists could ever hope to, so I’m not sure where the idea comes from that they are better moral actors.

I believe in a strictly secular government that allows for free expression of religion.  Since I do not subscribe to any sect, nor to a consider myself part of “organized irreligion,” I believe I may in fact be MORE able to make policy decisions that are pluralistic and tolerant.  An atheist who understands the worth of religion and who believes in personal liberty is uniquely situated to make unbiased judgments.  And this is why it scares some people who want to move closer to theocracy.  Now, I’m not suited for office for other reasons, but I firmly believe that there are many atheists who have the temperament to do so.  Regardless, the underlying point is this – it is wrong for anyone, religious or not, to say they will not vote for someone based on personal faith or lack thereof.

I respect S.E. and believe she can do immense good for increasing tolerance and acceptance of atheism.  But she does us no favors whatsoever by endorsing false stereotypes.  We have every right, and in fact DUTY, to express our beliefs as plainly and openly as religious folks do.  So here is what I’d say if I could address S.E. – be yourself, don’t be ashamed of your beliefs, and don’t accept false ideas just to get along.  There are people who will hate you for your non-faith.  Don’t give them quarter – they are wrong, and we can prove it to them.  Above all, stay strong, my fellow non-believer, and keep fighting.

Why I am not an anti-theist

Like any other belief group, atheism comes in a number of flavors.  Yet, it seems that without fail, one group gets most of the attention and serves to define atheism for outsiders.  This group is the anti-theists – those who believe that not only is there no god, but that belief in god(s) is inherently harmful for society.  The anti-theists are by far the most outspoken and activist segment of atheism.  Many of the most well-known atheists, from the late Hitchens to Dawkins to Penn Jilette to Ricky Gervais, would likely define themselves as such.

To a large degree I understand where these folks are coming from.  I’ve read both “God is not Great” by the late Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins (the latter of which is far more worthwhile, IMO).  I’ve read about many of the bad things that religion has done – justifying slavery, triggering war, relegating women and gays to second-class status.   And I think the religious folks, if they are being honest, would admit that horrible things have been done in the name of God.  You’d be hard-pressed to find someone eager to defend the Inquisition or the Crusades, and we very rightly retch when radical Muslims use the Koran to excuse terrorism.

But I’m also someone who cares far more about how people act and treat each other.  It is my fervent belief that being a good and decent person does not require religion.  However, it is also my belief that religion is by no means antithetical to being a good person, and in fact for many spurs it.  As someone who spent many years in the church, I met countless people who were given great joy by their faith and driven to be better people and improve themselves.  Sure, I also met many who were the opposite – petty, judgmental, and unkind.  But then, that dichotomy is found in any group.

I simply know too many people who are given incredible peace and comfort by their faith for me to consider religion an inherently bad thing.  Do I disagree with their beliefs?  Of course, and if the subject comes up, I’ll do my best to debate it with respect and fairness.  One thing I know is that the vast majority of religious folks are not stupid, weak, or foolish.  They are simply people who, in their search for truth and meaning, have come to a different conclusion than I have.  I spent many years in the theistic ranks, and I see definite merit to pro-God arguments even if I now disagree.

Religion will never go away, as much as the anti-theists would like to believe.  We can either do our best to live with each other, or we can live in conflict and division.  I reject the culture war that many conservatives claim to exist; but I also reject the culture war that anti-theists see themselves as waging.  Prayer is not a threat to me, nor are public expressions of faith, so long as neither is forced on me.  And I will continue to count religious folks amongst my dearest friends.

On the bashing of atheists/agnostics

I’ve been wanting to write a post here for a long time.  There have been a few ideas that have come and gone, some even to the point where I started writing… but nothing to show for it.  I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with blogging in general.  There are periods where I write regularly, other periods where I come to see it as futile and give up.  But I always come back to it, and over the years I’ve realized that while I do enjoy political blogging at times, it is other subjects, particularly those of philosophy and religion, that have always better aroused my passion.

While I make no secret of my non-faith, I’m not aggressive about it either.  I’m not one of those non-believers that feels the need to call those of faith stupid or ignorant.  I know good people of both faith and non-faith, and I certainly count among my closest friends many who take their religious views very seriously.  As a rule, I try to be respectful of others’ beliefs, given that they do not try to force them upon me, and given that they, overall, make them a better person.  Faith can do this, and does do this, for millions, and to deny that would be silly.

As a holder of a minority worldview – my own views surely deserving of further explanation but essentially coming down to non-theistic agnosticism – I’m used to politicians not exactly gunning for my vote.  If I’m lucky, I’ll get an off-hand remark about how both those of faith and non-faith can be good people (for all his flaws, George W. Bush was remarkably tolerant).  However, I’m not expecting much.  What does get to me, though, is when a politician goes out of his or her way to insult me.  It is not always a calculated move, usually a passing reference to the false belief that atheists/agnostics have no values.

The example that sparked this post came when I saw this brief comment made by Newt Gingrich in a debate last month.  The moment did not get much attention at the time as it is hardly out of the ordinary to hear non-religious folks denigrated during Republican political events.  But in seeing this, it made me think of two things.  First, how profoundly ignorant Gingrich must be to think that those who don’t have faith have no values or judgment.  Secondly, how utterly contemptible he is to essentially imply those without faith are, as a rule, of poor character and completely undeserving of trust and power.

Now, certainly, from a political point of view, bashing atheists/agnostics isn’t going to cost anyone many votes, and may in fact gain them quite a few from those who are prejudiced.  Certainly among Republicans, it may indeed be a mainstream, majority belief that atheists are no better than Muslims – perhaps even worse.  So in the grand scheme, Newt’s comments will not hurt him, if they have any effect at all.  But it does, to me, shed some light on his character.  Does he not know any non-believers in his personal life?  If he does, does he treat them with suspicion?  Or is he just throwing red meat to a base that is largely convinced that secular humanism is a force of Satan?

Throwing rocks at non-believers tells me a lot about a person.  It says that person is willing to insult and slander one group in order to feed the worst instincts of the larger group.  It says that person has not even bothered to understand or get to know non-believers.  It says that person can and would prejudge those that they hire based on their faith and religious background.  In the end, it says they are a fool – a small-minded person who simply cannot fathom how one can come to the conclusion that God does not exist without then becoming a mass murderer or rapist.

Whether or not believers like it, there are millions of us out there who find our answers and contentment outside of the cathedral, mosque, and temple.  By many measurements non-belief is among the fastest growing groups in America.  By no means at all does this mean religion is threatened.  But it does mean that sooner or later, politicians will have to come to grips with the idea that we are out there.  The sooner they shed their preconceived notions, the sooner they will learn how to connect with people regardless of their religious views or lack thereof.